Dear Fr. Joe: What exactly are the principles of social justice?

Q. At Mass on Sunday, one of the intentions was for social justice. I hear this term all the time in church – what does it mean?

A. So, last issue, we looked at the idea of social justice. This month, we are going to continue that discussion by looking at the themes of Catholic social teaching. This comes to us from our bishops and is easily accessible on their web page, Once again, because our political dialogue is so strident right now, I’m asking us all to do ourselves a favor and, before we read further, pause. Pray for the grace to let our faith inform our politics, instead of the opposite.

Done? Good! Let’s get right to it.

The first principle of Catholic social teaching is the life and dignity of the human person. We hit this pretty hard last issue, so I hesitate to go into it too heavily, yet, at the same time, can you really say too much about human dignity? Each person is sacred. So sacred, that even the possibility of life compels us to discourage any act that will attack human dignity. Abortion would be the most grievous example of attacking human dignity, with cloning, embryonic stem-cell research, the death penalty and others to follow.

The second principle is the call to family, community and participation. In this point, our bishops remind us that the human person is not only sacred, but also social. In all that we do, marriage and family are to be understood as the foundation for our society. Our laws must protect these interrelated ideas of family and marriage. All of us are called to work together for the common good, especially looking to protect the poor and vulnerable.

The third principle of Catholic social teaching is rights and responsibilities. Basically, in this principle, we remember that the previous two principles require us, as Catholics, to follow through with what we believe by acting in a responsible manner regarding our duties and responsibilities “to one another, to our families and to the larger society.” Here we are challenged to act not just in our self-interest, but in the interest of all. God wants our world bigger, not smaller.

The fourth principle is the option for the poor and vulnerable. I can’t say it better or clearer than our bishops: “In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the Last Judgment and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.” What a challenge! Especially in these tough economic times, God wants to challenge us to stretch further, not easier. We aren’t called to sit in judgment of the poor and vulnerable; at no point does God call us to that. We are called to help those we can in any way that we can. Check out Matthew 25: 31-46 if you really want to get shaken up.

The fifth principle of Catholic social teaching is the dignity of work and the rights of the workers. I love the summary statement here – “The economy must serve people, not the other way around.” Here, the bishops summarize the basic rights of workers: “productive work, decent and fair wages, the organization and joining of unions, private property and economic initiative.” This statement is part of a long tradition in the Catholic Church and one of which we should be proud.

Solidarity is the fifth principle. This reminds us that we are all God’s children. We are challenged by our faith to be people who promote peace and the goodness of all of God’s children throughout the world, whether they are in “our country” or another. God will not ask us if we were good Americans, he will ask us if we cared for his little ones.

We come now to the last principle of Catholic social teaching: care for God’s creation. Our bishops remind us that this is a requirement for our faith – that God’s mandate to us to care for the earth may be inconvenient at times, but is vital to appreciating the great gift God gave us when he gave us this world.

So. There it is. You’ll notice that both Republicans and Democrats are both affirmed and challenged and, in that, we are being offered a gift – the gift of letting God stretch us beyond our personal political affiliation and to serve as agents of change in our homes, workplaces and country.

There are those out there who will try to tell us that faith and politics don’t mix. They are wrong. If we are somehow capable of divorcing our faith from our politics, then I suggest we have no faith. To those who would tell us to keep our Catholicism out of our politics, our jobs or any expression of our public lives, we are to speak the truth that our faith is much of what makes us what we are. We have a duty to bring the entirety of ourselves to the political process and, in doing so, we are bringing an amazing addition to it. When we let our faith inform our vote and our political stances, we are bringing with us the wisdom and tradition of 2,000 years of thinkers and doers.

Our faith is who we are and we are better for it. If those in power don’t buy that, they shouldn’t be in power.

I’ve learned a lot researching these last two articles and it’s shaken me pretty hard to let the truth of our faith confront some of what I’ve held as my position on various things. In the end, I know I’m better for it and I invite you to join me in letting God transform our hearts and our minds!

Enjoy another day in God’s presence …